Getting In Trouble For Telling HS Students About 5th Amendment Right Against Self-Incrimination

May 27th, 2013

When I was in law school, I volunteered to give a lecture on constitutional law to a nearby high school government class (this wonderful experience helped sow the seeds for my work with the Harlan Institute). During the lecture, I turned to the 5th Amendment. I informed the students that if anyone–a police officer, or even a teacher–ever asks them if they have engaged in criminal activity, they should not answer any questions, and instead ask for their parent or guardian (and maybe even an attorney) to be present during the questioning. Getting in trouble with your parents pales in comparison to getting in trouble with the police (it’s so easy for a cop to say, “talk to us and we won’t have to call your mom.”) I explained to them that as minors, they could request a parent to be present, and an adverse inference cannot be drawn against them for requesting a guardian  Under no circumstance should the students ever make an incriminating statement to a police officer without a parent or lawyer present. This is basic stuff, right?

As I was telling the students this, I could see the teacher was getting livid. After I finished, she said something like, “But of course, you should always cooperate with the police.” I added, “No, you shouldn’t. Especially if you may provide any incriminating information.” A few of the students asked follow-up questions, and I reassured them that staying silent–like they always hear in the movies–is the smart thing to do. The teacher was getting visibly angry.  I didn’t ask to return to that class the following year (I graduated and left Virginia), but I doubt I would’ve received another invitation.

Anyway, I hope the message got across to the students. Students may shed some of their constitutional rights at the schoolhouse gate, but I do everything in my power to make sure they know what those rights are–through the Harlan Institute and otherwise.

Reason blogs about a similar story from Illinois. A high school teacher informed his students that they do not need to fill out forms asking if they’ve engaged in illegally using drugs or alcohol.

The survey, ostensibly aimed at assessing the needs of students at Batavia High School, was distributed on April 18. After picking up the survey forms from his mailbox about 10 minutes before his first class of the day, John Dryden noticed that they had students’ names on them and that they asked about drinking and drug use, among other subjects. Dryden, who had just finished teaching a unit on the Bill of Rights, worried that students might feel obliged to incriminate themselves—an especially ticklish situation given the police officer stationed at the school. Since there was no time to confer with administrators, he says, he decided to tell his students that they did not have to complete the forms if doing so involved admitting illegal behavior. Tomorrow the school board will consider whether and how to punish Dryden for taking advantage of this teachable moment.

The teacher is going to be disciplined. This is beyond perverse, but not surprising. Kudos to Mr. Dryden for showing his kids what their constitutional rights are.